The following is the essay “Naturalism and the Gods” featured on HumanisticPaganism.com on 6th of May, 2012.
Having a naturalist sensibility, I find supernatural concepts of deities within paganism difficult to accept. Having been unsure whether concepts of deities are applicable or valuable, I drifted towards an agnostic humanism. Exposure to the blending of process theism and religious naturalism in Karl E. Peters’ book Dancing with the Sacred reawakened my interest in polytheism.
By applying naturalistic process theism to polytheism, I find deities are processes which superimpose and overlap each other in complex patterns of creativity, and ceremony is a powerful method of actively participating in any given process. Process theology emphasizes God as the act of becoming, and moves away from God as an omnipotent being. In this regard, god is found in the events which shape our experiences and initiates change in our lives. Religious naturalism finds value in religious expression and experience and holds the natural living-world sacred without supernatural intervention.
Peters combines the two perspectives by seeing god as continuous evolutionary creativity. Thus, god is found both by the scientist seeking to understand the building blocks of life and in the religious experience longing to understand humanity’s place within the cosmos. Upon reading Peters, my thoughts wandered to the groupings of atoms that create matter, the weather cycle, evolution of lifeforms, and human expressions like art, literature, and music, as being processes in their own right.
As a member of a group of pagan and naturalist Unitarian Universalists, I began implementing these concepts into group ceremonies. One ceremony revolved around the planting of native seeds at our UU church. We spent a week preparing the ground with meditative intent. In song and dance, we sowed the seeds under the night sky of the autumnal equinox.
These experiences helped me understand myself as an active co-creator within the processes of the natural living-world. Having combined my efforts and will with creative evolutionary processes, deities were no longer individual personal beings but processes toward which I contributed in active participation.
These realizations had me question the usefulness of anthropomorphism as a means of deification. Giving deities human-like forms made sense at one point of human understanding. The primary experience represented in a deity is easiest to access through human action. Perhaps to understand how deities worked, they gave them human form.
The downside is these images became the focus of worship. In a post-modern context, with our expanded understanding of the world around us, a focus on anthropomorphism feels outdated. It can help us understand processes related to the human experience, but limits us to a human-centric understanding.
Seeking the Transpersonal
The idea of transpersonal psychology is to explore the impact of experiences which transcend the phenomenon of ego and otherness. A transpersonal relationship with a deity expands our experience through action. The deity is no longer a vague idea of the sacred, but a continuous experience of co-creation that is malleable and present within each passing moment.
This contrasts with the need of many neopagans to seek interpersonal relationships with deities. In my experience, images may become useful in identifying and understanding the process of deities, but is not static representation, nor should they be the focus of worship. I prefer seeking a transpersonal relationship that allows me participation in the sacred process that is the deity.
Seeing deities as active creative evolutionary processes broadens my views on ceremony and the religious experience. Because of this, worship is not passive, but an active expression of co-creation with the universe and natural living world.I refer to this approach as naturalistic polytheism. It has allowed me to acknowledge that the scientific and the sacred are not contradictory, but part of each other. Perhaps, in taking a naturalistic perspective of deities and mythology, the traditions of the past can come to life, and help us develop new ones specific to who we are as humans today.
It has been a year since this article was first published. Thinking back upon my words, there have been some shifts in how I think about polytheism within a naturalistic framework. First, polytheism allows for many interpretations of deities. Likewise, there is much flexibility in religious naturalism. I believe polytheism has a place within religious naturalism.
In discussion with a friend on the topic, he pointed out that my perspective fits well within structural analysis of critical theory. Structuralism is a mode of thinking that seeks to place human culture within the context of relationships to other parts of a larger system.
I began thinking there could be many interpretations of naturalistic polytheism then the one proposed above. A more specific title for my brand of polytheism is process polytheism. However, my friend has a point; Structural Polytheism may be the best descriptive label for this school of thought on the subject.
I would be interested to hear other perception on polytheist naturalism.
Also, check out Alison Leigh Lilly‘s Article Natural Theology: Polytheism Beyond The Pale from 14-Sept-2012.